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Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group C

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Coming off their first African title, Zambia gets a fortunate group draw to start their title defense. A refactoring Nigerian team is the group’s next threat, with two teams who’ve failed to impact recent tournaments rounding out Group C.

Like Group B, there is a top-heavy nature to this group, but while a team like Congo DR provided a threat at the bottom of Ghana’s group, the underdogs in this group sit waiting for a favorite to slip. A mistake-free mini-tournament should see the top two through.

Group C kicks off on Monday.

GROUP C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia

ZAMBIA

World rank: 39; CAF rank: 5; Best finish: Champions in 2012.

The Copper Bullets shocked the world in 2012, defeating tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire in the final to claim their first Cup of Nations. While that result sees Hervé Renard’s side carrying new expectations into South Africa, few are picking Zambia to make a run for a second title.

History: Though 2012 was the Copper Bullets’ first Cup victory, the team had made two previous appearances in the tournament final: 1974, 1994. Despite only limited success, Zambia have been consistent qualifiers for the competition, participating in 12 of the last 13 tournaments.

Players: Attacker Christopher Katongo (Henan Jianye, China) was player of the tournament last year. He’ll line up in support of 22-year-old Southampton striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of two Copper Bullets playing in Europe’s big five leagues. The other, Stophira Sunzu (Reading, England), will anchor a defense featuring the team’s most-capped player, 35-year-old left back Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows, South Africa). Isaac Chansa (Henan Jianye) will feature in midfield, while 21-year-old Chisamba Lungu (Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia) is expected to get the call on the right side of Renard’s attack.

How they’ll play: Zambia’s lack of quality in midfield forces them to rely on the counter, something they proved adept at executing last year. It is, however, possible for them to be choked out of games, something that may explain their mediocre results since last year’s title.

Outlook: The Copper Bullets will need some breaks to replicate last year’s run, but making it out of group shouldn’t be a problem.

NIGERIA

World rank: 52; CAF rank: 9; Best finish: Champions in 1980 and 1994.

Internationally, Nigeria is still regarded as one of the Africa’s elites, a view that matches the pride and expectations of fans at home. But the luster is gone from a nation whose recent results fail to match their talent. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon and have not advanced from their World Cup group since their success in the 1990s.

History: Including their two titles, Nigeria has 13 top-three finishes — the most of any nation — but it’s been nearly 20 years since their last title. They haven’t made a tournament final in 13 years.

Players: After the disappointment of South Africa 2010, players like Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins have been phased out of the team. The only players over 25 who are expected to start Nigeria’s first match are defender and captain Joseph Yobo (32, Fenerbahçe) as well as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama (30, Maccabi Tel Aviv). Attackers Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow), Victor Moses (Chelsea), and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) average just over 22 years old, while 25-year-old John Obi-Mikel (Chelsea) is the old man in a midfield with Padova’s Nwankwo Obiorah and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor.

How they’ll play: Nigeria’s personnel has changed, but their play will largely be the same. Theirs is a stylish, flowing game that tends to work vertically as opposed to relying on possession. Particularly in their front three, the team has skill, pace, and potential, but despite the turnover in players, the question remains the same: Do they have a midfield to match?

Outlook: It’s an inexperienced squad but one that should be able to get out of the group on talent alone. Burkina Faso is capable while Ethopia’s stocking up. The Super Eagles’ inexperience is the risk.

BURKINA FASO

World rank: 92; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: Fourth place in 1998.

Having never qualified for a World Cup, Burkina Faso is the type of nation fans outside of Africa know little about. But with a number of players who play in prominent leagues, the Stallions are a more capable team than their lack of reputation suggests. The question is whether they can convert that talent, particularly in attack, to a team that can do more than merely keep up. Can Burkina Faso actually threaten anybody?

History: The team’s been a consistent qualifier for recent Cup of Nations, making eight of the last 10 editions of the tournament. Unfortunately they’ve only made it beyond the first round once: At home in 1998. Undone by their inability to score goals, the Stallions have been insignificant participants.

Players: Moumouni Dagano’s (Al-Sailiya, Qatar) 24 goals in 58 appearances make him Burkina Faso’s most-proven scoring threat, but left wing Jonathan Pitroipa is their most dangerous player. One of the main threats for Rennes in Ligue 1, the 26-year-old has been unable to find the same success for his national team (four goals in 34 appearances). Now’s the time for him to step up.

Marsielle’s Charles Kaboré plays at the base of a midfield purposing the more advanced Alain Traouré (Auxerre, France), with Lyon’s Bakary Koné the team’s best defender.

How they’ll play: A solid team that’s capable of containing opponents, Bukina Faso’s style typically lacks drive doing forward. The can play either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, both of which will lack drive from the midfield. It’s unclear how head coach Paul Put can solve that problem.

Outlook: This is a team that could take advantage of Nigeria’s inexperience, but not if the Super Eagles play to their potential. The Stallions are waiting for somebody to fall before breaking back through into the quarterfinals.

ETHIOPIA

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: 1962 Champions.

It’s been 31 years since Ethiopia has qualified for a major tournament. To do so, the former Champions needed five goals over two qualifying legs, eventually advancing past Sudan on the away goals tiebreaker. At 31st in the region, they are this year’s lowest-ranked qualifier.

History: Ethiopia won the third Cup of Nations and qualified for each of the first seven tournaments. Since, the Walya Antelopes have only qualified twice and not since 1982. They haven’t advanced beyond group play since the year they won the title.

Players: Nineteen of the squad’s 23 players are domestic-based, with Minnesota-raised NASL forward and former U.S. U-level player Fuad Ibrahim one of the exceptions. He’s part of a concerted search for new Ethopian talent.

Defender Degu Debebe captains the team. He’s been capped 44 times and will be partnered in central defense by Saint George teammate Abebaw Butako. (Seven Saint George players are in the squad.)

Twnety-five year old Addis Hintsa (Dedebit, Ethipoia) holds down the midfield, with Egypt-based Saladin Said (Wadi Degla) leading the attack.

How they’ll play: Inconsistently. Doing forward, the Antelopes are capable of goals (as they showed against Sudan), but they tend to play on the counter while paradoxically leaving an inconsistent defense excessively exposed.

Outlook: The Ethiopians are ambitious, but their ambition is more likely to be rewarded in their quest to qualify for Brazil. They’ll need both breaks and luck to get out of this group.

SCHEDULE

Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Ethiopia
Monday, Jan. 21, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Nigeria versus Burkina Faso
Friday, Jan. 25, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Nigeria
Friday, Jan, 25, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Ethiopia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Zambia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Ethiopia versus Nigeria

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Zambia (7 pts.)
2. Nigeria (5 pts.)
3. Burkina Faso (2 pts.)
4. Ethiopia (1 pt.)

USWNT tops Mexico, advances to Olympic qualifying semis on late Lloyd PK

United States' Carli Lloyd (10) scores a goal on a penalty kick against Costa Rica during the first half of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament soccer match Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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The U.S. women’s national team is one step closer to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in after the Lady Yanks, on the back of Carli Lloyd’s 79th minute, knocked off their North American rivals, Mexico, in a narrow, physical affair at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex., on Saturday.

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With only bottom-of-the-group Puerto Rico (0 points, -15 goal differential through two games) still to face, the USWNT are through to the semifinal round, at which point they’ll be one more win away from qualifying for this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

The first half of Saturday’s clash was much different from what either side saw in their opening game — USWNT beat Costa Rica, 5-0, while Mexico routed Puerto Rick, 6-0 — as both sides engaged in a rough-and-tumble affair, racked up plenty of fouls and failed to create much of anything in terms of quality scoring chances.

The USWNT’s best chance early in the second half came in the 53rd minute, when Christen Press rifled a right-footed effort toward the far post from 15 yards out, but found nothing but woodwork before the ball caromed back into the field of play.

[ MORE: USWNT routs Costa Rica in Olympic qualifying opener ]

Alex Morgan very nearly opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Becky Sauerbrunn’s long throw was flicked on by Lindsey Horan’s header inside the penalty area, and eventually made its way to Morgan near the top of the six-yard box, from where her volleyed effort was sent inches over the crossbar.

With 77 minutes on the clock, Horan followed suit with a shot of her own off the post. From 20 yards out, her right-footed effort had beaten the goalkeeper, only to hit the same far post and bounce across the face of goal, where not a single American player was waiting to tap home the rebound.

All of Mexico’s dogged defensive work was undone in the 79th minute, though, as the USWNT was awarded a controversial penalty for handball. Lloyd’s initial effort from the penalty spot was saved, but the reigning World Player of the Year was first to the rebound and slotted the ball into an empty net (below video).

PL Sunday preview: Arsenal-Leicester, Man City-Spurs in top-four defining day

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, center, scores their third goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Paul Harding/PA via AP)     UNITED KINGDOM OUT       -     NO SALES      -      NO ARCHIVES
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The Premier League top-four’s defining day is upon us, as 3rd-in-the-league Arsenal hosts 1st-in-the-league Leicester City, and 4th-in-the-league Manchester City hosts 2nd-in-the-league Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s also another important day in Aston Villa’s bid to avoid relegation, as they host (very, very faint) UEFA Champions League hopefuls Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

No side in the Premier League has won more points away from home this season (28) than Leicester, which will no doubt have Arsenal fans feeling terrified for the whole of Saturday evening as Sunday morning looms.

When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Sept. 26, Arsenal walked out of the King Power Stadium with a resounding 5-2 victory, with many thanks to an Alexis Sanchez hat trick. Since that early Autumn day, Leicester have lost just once in the league (two PL losses all season), to Liverpool on Boxing Day. Jamie Vardy, who failed to score a single goal in six league games from Dec. 19 to Jan. 16, has scored three in his last three games (Leicester have beaten Stoke City, Liverpool and Man City by a combined score of 8-1 during that period).

On the injury front, the Gunners are mostly healthy, with Santi Cazorla (knee) the only first-teamer of real consequence due to miss Sunday’s game. The same goes for Leicester, who have a totally clean bill of health in terms of players who have featured this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Sunderland shock Man United, Chelsea roll ]

Aston Villa vs. Liverpool — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Bottom-of-the-table Villa need wins in the very worst of ways — with 13 games left in their season, Rudi Garde’s side is currently eight points from safety; the magical 40-point marks remains a whopping 24 points ahead of them. Liverpool currently sit 12 points behind Man City for the fourth and final Champions League place, thus Sunday’s trip to Villa Park is a must-win for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. When these teams met back in late September, Daniel Sturridge was the hero in a 3-2 victory at Anfield.

On the injury front, Villa will be without Jordan Ayew (suspension), Jack Grealish (ankle) and Adama Troare (foot), while Carlos Sanchez (hamstring) and Rudy Gestede (hamstring). Liverpool’s latest injury report, meanwhile, is an utter disaster that weakens every unit of their squad, though Sturridge is (finally) back in action.

[ MORE: Suarez — I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League ]

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 11:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

A single point separates the PL’s second- and fourth-place teams, who are set to face off at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Tottenham, who are two or three years ahead of Mauricio Pochettino‘s perceived timetable turning Spurs into PL contenders, are very much in the title race. When they welcomed Man City to White Hart Lane in September, the final score was 4-1 to Pochettino’s side, and the warning had been heard loud and clear. Harry Kane has scored four goals in his last four PL games.

City, somehow, still haven’t won back-to-back league games since the middle of October, and that’ll not be changing on Sunday, given their 3-1 defeat to Leicester last weekend. City’s talisman, Sergio Aguero, has remained healthy of late and displayed the kind of form that makes him capable of winning any game on his own on a given day (7 goals in last 6 PL appearances). With Vincent Kompany expected to make his return from a calf injury that has sidelined the Sky Blues captain since Boxing Day, now is the time for City’s defense to begin to match Aguero’s attacking brilliance if they are to push on and send Manuel Pellegrini out with another PL title.

On the injury front, Man City will once again be without Kevin De Bruyne (knee), as well as Eliaquim Mangala (hamstring), Jesus Navas (hamstring) and perhaps Wilfried Bony (calf). For Spurs, only Jan Vertonghen (knee) is expected to be unavailable.

Premier League roundup: Top Four has separation; Relegation picture much clearer

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Manchester United at the Stadium of Light on February 13, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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A couple of lessons from Saturday in the Premier League:

  1. The reasonable relegation field has slimmed
  2. Thanks to two other sides, so has the Top Four

Manchester United and West Ham United both stumbled in a quest to make up ground on the top four sides in the Premier League, who face off with each other on Sunday.

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And Norwich City’s point coupled with Chelsea’s demolition of Newcastle United has the contestants for the Bottom Three looking pared down to six clubs.

Sunderland 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

United will finish the weekend a minimum of six points outside of the Top Four after allowing a third minute goal and another about the same distance from the final whistle in its first ever loss at the Stadium of Light. Wahbi Khazri looks the part for Sunderland, who moved to within a point of safety with the win. Anthony Martial scored for United

Swansea City 0-1 SouthamptonRECAP

Fraser Forster has six-straight shutouts and Saints are knocking on the door of fifth place after picking up three points in Wales. Shane Long‘s late goal lifted Saints to the win and 40 points on the season, while Swans are three points ahead of 17th place Norwich City and 18th place Newcastle.

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.

Chelsea 5-1 Newcastle UnitedRECAP

Newcastle started a makeshift back four with winger Rolando Aarons filling in at fullback, and Chelsea absolutely devoured the Magpies to win its first season series against the Northeast side since 2011. Pedro nabbed a pair of goals, with Bertrand Traore adding his first Premier League goal. Diego Costa and Willian also scored, and Andros Townsend added his first goal since leaving Spurs in the January transfer window. Newcastle is 18th after the blowout loss sunk them beneath Norwich on differential.

Norwich City 2-2 West Ham UnitedRECAP

And that’s because the Canaries tossed away a 2-0 home lead against Dimitri Payet. We should say West Ham, but Payet has been an absolute wizard for the Irons and scored before setting Mark Noble up for a second in erasing the deficit caused by goals from Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan. For the moment, Norwich is 17th and the Hammers failed in a bid to overtake Manchester United for fifth.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Giannelli Imbula of Stoke City controls the ball under pressure of Harry Arter of Bournemouth  during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Stoke City at Vitality Stadium on February 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 13: Giannelli Imbula of Stoke City and Harry Arter of Bournemouth  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Bournemouth 1-3 Stoke CityRECAP

Giannlli Imbula, Joselu and Ibrahim Afellay helped the Potters cruise to a win at Vitality Stadium, halting its slide while moving Bournemouth smack dab back in the relegation frame. The Cherries are four points free of the drop zone, and Matt Ritchie‘s goal was part of a game comeback effort from Eddie Howe‘s bunch.

Everton 0-1 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

The Toffees managed an incredible 34 shots, but couldn’t slip one past a packed-in West Brom side. The Baggies closed up shop after Salomon Rondon scored in the 14th minute, West Brom’s only shot on target of the night. Tony Pulis‘ side is eight points clear of the drop.

Crystal Palace 1-2 WatfordRECAP

Alan Pardew‘s Eagles are all the way down to 13th and winless in 2016 Premier League matches. With just one point from its last seven matches, Palace needs a win soon to avoid being a very real part of the relegation picture. Quique Flores‘ Hornets, however, are essentially safe after moving to within five points of fifth. Troy Deeney scored both of Watford’s goals, while Emmanuel Adebayor netted for Palace.

 

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Arsenal 25 14 6 5 39 22 17 7-3-2 7-3-3 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Manchester United 26 11 8 7 33 24 9 6-4-2 5-4-5 41
Southampton 26 11 7 8 34 24 10 7-2-4 4-5-4 40
West Ham United 26 10 10 6 40 31 9 5-5-2 5-5-4 40
Watford 26 10 6 10 29 28 1 5-3-5 5-3-5 36
Stoke City 26 10 6 10 27 32 -5 5-2-5 5-4-5 36
Everton 26 8 11 7 46 35 11 4-4-6 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Chelsea 26 8 9 9 38 36 2 5-5-4 3-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 26 9 5 12 27 32 -5 4-2-8 5-3-4 32
West Bromwich Albion 26 8 8 10 24 32 -8 4-4-5 4-4-5 32
Bournemouth 26 7 7 12 30 44 -14 3-4-6 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 26 6 9 11 24 34 -10 4-5-5 2-4-6 27
Norwich City 26 6 6 14 30 50 -20 4-4-5 2-2-9 24

Newcastle United 26 6 6 14 27 49 -22 4-5-4 2-1-10 24
Sunderland 26 6 5 15 32 50 -18 4-3-6 2-2-9 23
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Watch Live: USWNT takes on Mexico in Olympic qualifier no. 2

Costa Rica defender Carol Sanchez, left, helps goalie Dinnia Diaz (1) on a shot by U.S.forward Alex Morgan, center, during the second half of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament soccer match Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. Morgan scored 12 seconds in and added another goal in the 62nd minute. The United States won 5-0.. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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The latest chapter in the United States versus Mexico soccer rivalry takes place on Saturday, as the United States women’s national team faces the Mexican women’s national team in the second game of 2016 Olympic qualifying.

The game, which kicks off at 4 p.m. ET, can be seen live on NBC Sports Live Extra (link below) from Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex.

[ WATCH LIVE: USWNT vs. Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Mexico currently sits atop Group A after a 6-0 drubbing of Puerto Rico in their opening game, while the USWNT are a very close second, having beaten Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.